Country: Oromia (also phonetically spelled as Oromiyaa)
Area: 600,000 sq.km approx.
Capital: Finfinnee (also called Addis Ababa)
Population: 30 million (1995 estimate)
Language: Oromo, also called Afan Oromo or Oromiffa
Economy: Mainly agriculture (coffee, several crops, spices, vegetables) and animal husbandry; mining industry; tourism trade; medium and small-scale industries (textiles, refineries, meat packaging, etc)
Religions: Waaqqefata (the traditional belief in Waaqa or God), Islam, and Christian (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant)
The Oromo make up a significant portion of the population occupying the Horn of Africa. In the Ethiopian Empire alone, Oromo constitute about ~50% inhabitants of the Ethiopian Empire. In fact, the Oromo nation, as one of the most numerous nations in Africa, enjoys homogeneous culture and shares a common language, history and descent, and once shared common political, religious and legal institutions. During their long history, the Oromo developed their own cultural, social and political system known as the Gadaa system. It was a uniquely democratic political and social institution that governed the life of every individual in the society from birth to death.
Ecologically and agriculturally, Oromia (Oromo country) is the richest region in the Horn of Africa. Livestock products, coffee, oil seeds, spices, mineral resources and wild life are all diverse and abundant. In spite of all these advantages, a century of colonization by Abyssinia (Ethiopia), a backward nation itself, has meant that the Oromo people have endured a stagnant existence where ignorance and famine have been coupled with ruthless oppression, subjugation, exploitation and above all, extermination. Thus, for the last one hundred years under the Ethiopian rule, the Oromo have gained very little, if anything, in the way of political, social and economic progress.
The Oromo were colonized during the last quarter of the nineteenth century by a black African nation - Abyssinia - with the help of the European colonial powers of the day. During the same period, of course, the Somalis, Kenyans, Sudanese and others were colonized by European powers. The fact that the Oromo were colonized by another black African nation makes their case quite special.
During the process of colonization, between 1870 and 1900, the Oromo population was reduced from ten to five millions. This period coincides with the occupation of Oromo land by the Abyssinian emperors Yohannes and Menilek. After colonization, these emperors and their successors continued to treat Oromo with utmost cruelty. Many Oromo were killed by the colonial army and settlers, others died of famine and epidemics of various diseases or were sold off as slaves. Those who remained on the land were reduced to the status of gabbar (a peasant from whom labor and produce were exacted, and the gabbar system is a crude form of serfdom).
Haile Selassie consolidated Yohannes and Menilek's gains, and with the use of violence, Haile Selassie obstructed the process of natural and historical development of the Oromo society - political, economic and social. In all spheres of life, discrimination, subjugation, repression and exploitation of all forms were applied. Everything possible was done to destroy Oromo identity - culture, language, custom, tradition, name and origin. In short, Haile Selassie maintained the general policy of genocide against the Oromo.
The 1974 revolution was brought about by the relentless struggle over several years by, among others, the Oromo peasants. The military junta, headed by Mengistu Haile-Mariam, usurped power and took over the revolution. This regime continued on the path of emperors Yohannes, Menilek and Haile Selassie in the oppression, subjugation and exploitation of Oromo, the settlement of Abyssinians on Oromo land and the policy of genocide.
Forced to fight against Eritreans, the Somalis and others, many Oromo have fallen in battles. Many others died on the streets of cities and towns during the so-called "Red Terror" period, and in a similar program that expanded in the countryside thereafter. Massacres in towns and villages coupled with bombing and search-and-destroy programs have caused the destruction of human lives, crops, animals and property, have driven Oromo from their land, and have forced them to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Not surprisingly, this ruthless oppression and persecution of peoples has resulted in the largest flight of refugees in Africa. A very large proportion of the refugees in the Horn of Africa are Oromo.
In its attempt to oppress and eliminate the essential elements of Oromo culture, the present regime has used cover-up words such as 'development, relief, settlement, villagization and literacy campaign' to mislead the world. In fact, most of these programs and projects have been aimed at displacing Oromo people and denying them freedom, justice, human dignity and peace, thereby hastening the process of de-Oromization.
The struggle of the Oromo people, then, is nothing more than an attempt to affirm their own place in history. It seeks equality, human dignity, democracy, freedom and peace. It is not directed against the masses of a particular nation or nationality, nor against individuals, but rather against Ethiopian colonialism led by the Abyssinian ruling class. Thus, it is the Ethiopian colonial system, and not the Amhara/Tigrean masses or individuals, which is under critical consideration.
Today when nearly all of the African peoples have won independence, the Oromo continue to suffer under the most backward and savage Ethiopian settler colonialism. All genuinely democratic and progressive individuals and groups, believing in peace, human dignity and liberty should support the Oromo struggle for liberation.
Although the Oromo nation is one of the largest in Africa, it is forgotten by or still unknown to the majority of the world today. Unfortunately, even the name Oromo is unknown to many, and this should not be allowed to continue.
The main purpose of this summary is to introduce readers briefly to the Oromo people, their land, and culture. For detailed treatment of the experiences of Oromo under Ethiopian colonial rule as well as their struggle for freedom, democracy and economic and social justice, please refer to the book from which this summary is extracted. Please do note the author's introductory message in this book: "... it is not the intention of this book to write a definitive Oromo history. This task is left to the historians, a work they have unjustly treated or unjustifiably ignored in the past. In fact, the little that has been written about Oromo has almost always been from Abyssinians and Europeans point of view".
The Oromo are one of the Cushitic-speaking groups of people with variations in color and physical characteristics ranging from Hamitic to Nilotic. A brief look at the early history of some of the peoples who occupied north-eastern Africa sheds some light on the ethnic origin of Oromo. The Cushitic speakers have inhabited north-eastern and eastern Africa for as long as recorded history. The land of Cush, Nubia or the ancient Ethiopia in middle and lower Nile is the home of the Cushitic speakers. It was most probably from there that they subsequently dispersed and became differentiated into separate linguistic and cultural groups. The various Cushitic nations inhabiting north-east and east Africa today are the result of this dispersion and differentiation. The Oromo form one of those groups which spread southwards, and then east and west occupying large part of the Horn of Africa. Their physical features, culture, language and other evidences unequivocally point to the fact that they are indigenous to this part of Africa. Available information clearly indicates that the Oromo existed as a community of people for thousands of years in East Africa (Prouty at al, 1981). Bates (1979) contends, "The Gallas (Oromo) were a very ancient race, the indigenous stock, perhaps, on which most other peoples in this part of eastern Africa have been grafted."
In spite of the fact that there are several indications and evidences that Oromo are indigenous to this part of Africa, Abyssinian rulers, court historians and monks contend that Oromo are newcomers to the region and did not belong here. For instance, the Abyssinian court historian, Alaqa Taye (1955), alleged that in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries the Oromo migrated from Asia and Madagascar, entered Africa via Mombasa and spread north and eastwards. Others have advocated that during the same period the Oromo crossed the Red Sea via Bab el Mandab and spread westwards. Abyssinian clergies even contended that Oromo emerged from water. On this issue, based on the points made in The Oromo's Voice Against Tyranny, Baxter (1985) remarked, "... the contention that the first Oromo had actually emerged from water and therefore, had not evolved to the same level of humanity as the Amhara (i.e. treating a myth of origin as a historical fact); or, more seriously, that Oromo were latecomers to Ethiopia and hence, by implication, intruders and not so entitled to be there as the Amhara."
The history of the arrival of the Oromo people in the sixteenth century in East Africa from outside is a fabrication and denial of historical facts. It is a myth created by Abyssinian court historians and monks, sustained by their European supporters and which the Ethiopian rulers used to lay claim on Oromo territory and justify their colonization of the Oromo people. Several authorities have indicated that the Oromo were in fact in the North-eastern part of the continent even before the arrival of the Habasha. According to Perham (1948): "the emigrant Semites landed in a continent of which the North-East appears to have been inhabited by the eastern groups of Hamites, often called Kushites, who also include the Gallas." Paulitschke (1889) indicated that Oromo were in East Africa during the Aksumite period. As recorded by Greenfield (1965), Oromo reject the view that they were late arrivals, "... old men amongst the Azebu and Rayya Galla dismiss talk of their being comparative newcomers." Their own (Abyssinians) oral history and legends attest to the fact that Oromo have been living in Rayya for a long time. Beke (cited by Pankurst, 1985-86) quoted the following Lasta legend: "Menilek, the son of Solomon, ... entered Abyssinia from the East, beyond the country of the Rayya or Azebo Gallas." There are also evidence (Greenfield et al, 1980) that at least by the ninth and tenth centuries that there were Oromo communities around Shawa and by about the fourteenth century settlements were reported around Lake Tana. The recent discovery, (Lynch and Robbins, 1978), in northern Kenya of the pillars that Oromo used in the invention of their calendar system, dated around 300 B.C., is another indication that Oromo have a long history of presence as a community of people, in this part of Africa.
The so called "Galla invasion of Ethiopia" is also a tale. It was first written around 1590 by a monk called Bahrey and henceforth European historians and others almost invariably accepted this story as a fact. From his writing, it is evident that he was biased against Oromo. The following quotation from Bahrey, (in Beckingham et al, 1954), vividly illustrates typical Abyssinian cultural, religious and racial biases against Oromo. He began his book "The History of the Galla": "I have begun to write the history of the Galla in order to make known the number of their tribes, their readiness to kill people, and the brutality of their manners. If anyone should say of my subject, 'Why has he written a history of a bad people, just as one would write a history of good people?', I would answer by saying 'Search in the books, and you will find that the history of Mohamed and the Moslem kings has been written, and they are our enemies in religion." In fact, it appears that the main purpose of his writing was to encourage Abyssinians against Oromo. Bahrey, Atseme, Harris, Haberiand and others description of what they called the 'Galla invasion of Ethiopia' as an avalanche, a sudden overwhelming human wave which could be likened to a flood or swarms of migratory locust is unrealistic and difficult to imagine to say the least.
The Oromo's Voice Against Tyranny argued that: "... the so-called Galla invasion of the sixteenth century was neither an invasion nor a migration. It was rather a national movement of the Oromo people ... with the specific goal of liberating themselves and their territories from colonial occupation. It was nothing more or less than a war of national liberation." In fact, the last 2000 years were occupied with a gradual expansion of Abyssinians from north to south. This expansion had been checked throughout by Oromo. It was only with the arrival of Europeans and their firearms that Abyssinians succeeded in their southward expansion mainly in the middle of last century.
Abyssinian and European historians alleged that there was a sudden population explosion in the Oromo community in the sixteenth century that enabled it to invade Ethiopia. The claim lacks a scientific base. During that time no significant, if at all any, technological development such as discoveries or introductions of medicines, new and improved tools for food production, etc. took place in the Oromo community that could have been the cause for the sudden population explosion. The Oromo community had no advantages of these sort over neighboring communities.
Different areas have been indicated as place where the Oromo developed or differentiated into its own unique community of people or ethnic group (Braukamper, 1980). According to some ethnologists and historians, the Oromo country of origin was the south-eastern part of Oromia, in the fertile valley of Madda Walaabu in the present Baale region. This conclusion was reached mainly on the basis of Oromo oral tradition. Based on scanty anthropological evidence, others have also pointed to the coastal area of the Horn of Africa, particularly the eastern part of the Somali peninsula, as the most probable place of Oromo origin. Bruce, an English traveler, indicated that Sennar in Sudan was the Oromo country of origin and that they expanded from there. It should be noted here that many European travelers have suggested the origin of peoples, including Oromo, to be where they met some for the first time, which in most cases happened to be peripheral areas.
There are several groups of people in East Africa very closely related to the Oromo. For instance, the Somalis are very similar in appearance and culture. The fact that the Somali and Oromo languages share between 30 percent and 40 percent of their vocabulary could be an indication that these two groups of people became differentiated very recently. Other Cushitic-speaking groups living in the same neighborhood that are closely related to the Oromo are Konso, Afar, Sidama, Kambata, Darassa, Agaw, Saho, Baja and other groups.
The Oromo are also known by another name, Galla. The people neither call themselves or like to be called by this name. They always called themselves Oromoo or Oromoota (plural). It is not known for certain when the name Galla was given to them. It has been said that it was given to them by neighboring peoples, particularly Amhara, and various origins of the word have been suggested. Some say it originated from the Oromo word 'galaana' meaning river in Oromiffa. Others indicate that it came from an Arabic word 'qaala laa'. There are other similar suggestions as to the origin of the word. The Abyssinians attach a derogatory connotation to the Galla, namely 'pagan, savage, uncivilized, uncultured, enemy, slave or inherently inferior'. The term seems to be aimed at generating an inferiority complex in the Oromo.
Oromo have several clans (gosa, qomoo). The Oromo are said to be of two major groups or moieties descended from the two 'houses' (wives) of the person Oromo represented by Borana and Barentu (Barenttuma). Borana was senior (angafa) and Barentu junior (qutisu). Such a dichotomy is quite common in Oromo society and serves some aspects of their political and social life. The descendants of Borana and Barentu form the major Oromo clans and sub-clans. They include Borana, Macha, Tuullama, Wallo, Garrii, Gurraa, Arsi, Karrayyu, ltu, Ala, Qalloo, Anniyya, Tummugga or Marawa, Orma, Akkichuu, Liban, Jile, Gofa, Sidamo, Sooddo, Galaan, Gujii and many others. However, in reality there is extensive overlap in the area they occupy and their community groups. And since marriage among Oromo occurs only between different clans there was high degree of homogeneity.
The Oromo make up ~50% of the population of the Ethiopian Empire. They are found in all the regions of the Ethiopian Empire except for Gondar. They make up a large proportion of the population of llubbabor, Arsi, Baale, Shawa, Hararge, Wallo, Wallagga, Sidamo and Kafa. They are also found in neighboring countries such as Kenya and Somalia. Out of the 50 nations of Africa, only four have larger population than Oromia.
The Oromo nation has a single common mother tongue and basic common culture. The Oromo language, Afaan Oromoo or Oromiffa, belongs to the eastern Cushitic group of languages and is the most extensive of the forty or so Cushitic languages. The Oromo language is very closely related to Konso, with more than fifty percent of the words in common, closely related to Somali and distantly related to Afar and Saho.
Oromiffa is considered one of the five most widely spoken languages from among the approximately 1,000 languages of Africa, (Gragg, 1982). Taking into consideration the number of speakers and the geographic area it covers, Oromiffa most probably rates second among the African indigenous languages. It is the third most widely spoken language in Africa, after Arabic and Hausa. It is the mother tongue of about 30 million Oromo people living in the Ethiopian Empire and neighboring countries. Perhaps not less than two million non-Oromo speak Oromiffa as a second language.
In fact, Oromiffa is a lingua franca in the whole of Ethiopian Empire, except for the northern part. It is a language spoken in common by several members of many of the nationalities like Harari, Anuak, Barta, Sidama, Gurage, etc., who are neighbors to Oromo.
Before colonization, the Oromo people had their own social, political and legal system. Trade and various kinds of skills such as wood and metal works, weaving, pottery and tannery flourished. Pastoralism and agriculture were well developed. Oromo have an extraordinarily rich heritage of proverbs, stories, songs and riddles. They have very comprehensive plant and animal names. The various customs pertaining to marriage, paternity, dress, etc. have elaborate descriptions. All these activities and experiences have enriched Oromiffa.
Much has been written about Oromiffa by foreigners who visited or lived in Oromia, particularly European missionaries. Several works have been written in Oromiffa using Roman, Sabean and Arabic scripts. Printed material in Oromiffa include the Bible, religious and non-religious songs, dictionaries, short stories, proverbs, poems, school books, grammar, etc. The Bible itself was translated into Oromiffa in Sabean script about a century ago by an Oromo slave called Onesimos Nasib, alias Hiikaa, (Gustave, 1978).
Roman, Arabic and Sabean scripts are all foreign to Oromiffa. None of them fit well the peculiar features of the sounds (phonology), in Oromiffa. The main deficiency of the Arabic script is the problem of vowel differentiation. The Sabean script does not differentiate germination of consonants and glottal stops. Moreover, it has seven vowels against ten for Oromiffa. Hence, the Roman script is relatively best suited for transcription of Oromiffa. An Italian scholar, Cerulli (1922), who attempted to write in Oromiffa using both Sabean and Roman, expressed the short comings of the Sabean script as follows: "to express the sounds of Galla language with letters of the Ethiopic (Sabean) alphabet, which express very imperfectly even the sounds of the Ethiopian language, is very near impossible ... reading Galla language written in Ethiopic alphabet is very like deciphering a secret writing." As a result several Oromo political, cultural groups and linguists have strongly advocated the use of the Roman script with the necessary modifications. It has thus been adopted by the Oromo Liberation Front some years ago.
A number of Oromo scholars in the past attempted to discover scripts suited for writing Oromiffa. The work of Sheikh Bakri Saphalo is one such attempt. His scripts were different in form but followed the symbol-sounds forming patterns of the Sabean system. Even though his scripts had serious shortcomings and could not be considered for writing Oromiffa now, it had gained popularity in some parts of eastern Oromia in the 1950s, before it was discovered by the colonial authorities and suppressed.
Oromiffa has been not only completely neglected but ruthlessly suppressed by the Ethiopian authorities with determined effort for almost a century to destroy and replace it with the Amharic language has been mostly ineffectual. Thus, the Abyssinization and the destruction of the Oromo national identity has partially failed.
Syllabary Sheikh Bakri Saphalo: